First, Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
Then Muslims cheered 9/11 on rooftops in Jersey. And Mexicans caused America’s crimes. Now only 16 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, because of the government’s “unsung success” of a response. Notice a theme? How about this: Whites have committed 59 percent of mass shootings in America since 1982.
Fact: Only one of those statements is true. And it’s the one never uttered by the American president.
What does it mean to live through social media’s struggle to disseminate truth? To live through the worldwide administrations of rulers who vilify the press and promote their own fictions to ethno-nationalist fans? To feel trapped in what on good days feels like a self-selecting echo chamber — and on bad days feel like a chamber chosen by our algorithmic overlords?
First, here’s what it doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean we face anything new.
Fake news has charmed us since Jews caused the bubonic plague. Since Ben Franklin libeled Indians, since Henry Ford published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, since the FBI framed Martin Luther King, since Anita Bryant made gays molesters. The new thing about fake news is our responsibility to fight it.
When Bryant captured cameras, the average gay couldn’t grab a phone and film back. When Ben Franklin made the trades, the Mohawk couldn’t tweet. I’m not saying we all must be swamis of social; God knows I’m a grandma if the revolution is ’grammed. But we must not be silent. And we live in a time when we have several ways to scream.
I find #resistance in writing. When I first conceived of Hoaxocaust!, my satire of Holocaust denial, I was resisting both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the 2008 Gaza War. I could not have imagined that, 10 years later, “fake news” wouldn’t just be a warning about fringe deniers but a proud platform for six white nationalists on the ballot in 2018. Or that Israel would have doubled down on its civil rights catastrophe, passing a Nationality Law that sanctions special rights for Jews at the undemocratic expense of others. Or that the two nations I call out for being nearest to my heart while betraying their promise would be but two among many bending toward illiberalism. Or that a fake post on Facebook would get an average of 13,000 shares while a post from CNN would get an average of 50.
A lot has changed since the 2008 version of Hoaxocaust! The world doesn’t need to be warned anymore that there’s such a thing as fake news. What it needs is to be focused to fight it. Because the fascists are counting on our fatigue. And it can seem impossible to fight every falsehood. What should I write a play about today: that there’s not really a white genocide in South Africa or that nearly 3,000 people really died in Puerto Rico?
Either. Write something. Say something. We are not alone in this. Craft one response while your neighbor crafts another. Share them. Promote them. If there’s an algorithm keeping truth from our ears, let’s crash the matrix. The response to fake news can’t be fatigue. It must be fact, in forceful floods.
“Every problem has its own solution,” Mr. Collins told Kevin on The Wonder Years. What a kindly, caring mentor. Or was he quoting a bigoted anti-Catholic whose self-help books made unsubstantiated references to unnamed “famous psychologists” and “practicing physicians”?
Perhaps the pervasiveness of social media also holds the seeds to its own solution. Let’s Johnny Appleseed the shit out of it. As Obama has returned to the campaign trail to remind us, the loudest voices will dominate our discourse. They always have. We must not leave what he rightly calls a vacuum. Plenty of people will fill it with air. It is up to us to fill it with truth.
BARRY LEVEY is the playwright and performer of the satirical one-man show Hoaxocaust!, which was extended to October 7 in New York. Find out more here.